I really wanted to finish this post weeks ago, but as life works out, as usual, my blog has been taking the back seat. I am endeavoring to change this! This community is important to me and I feel as though I have lost touch and I need to start over from square one. Anyway, for those of you who are still “out there”, here is my perspective on my week at the “5th Annual Intensive Flute Session : The Art of French Flute Playing with Nicolas Duchamp” in Westhampton, NY, in June. (This is the English version. Click here for la version en français!)
June 3-8, 2017
I have to tell this story before I forget everything! After a rather odd bus ride (I wasn’t impressed at all with this bus service!) I arrived at Westhampton, where I was to stay at a real “artist’s hideaway”!
At first, I tried to write this like a journal, in chronological order, with lots of details, but that really wasn’t the best way to tell this story. In fact, the whole week was sort of like a piece of music that began slowly and quietly, then gained intensity until that “voilà” moment, and then returned to the tranquility with which it began. I took the liberty of adding both an Introduction and a Coda, which took place in Manhattan.
I began my journey on a plane from Denver to JFK airport. I spent the first night in Manhattan, where I had a good time wandering about aimlessly, once I got settled in my hotel room. Quite by chance, I managed to find the “number one” pizza in NYC at a food fair in one of the many green squares dotting the city. It seemed as though there was something going on in every single one of them! I ate this pizza in a park, watching the denizens of NYC go about having their summer evenings. You’d think this would be a noisy way to begin, but in fact there is a strange peace when one is alone in the middle of a huge city. After eating this incredible meal, I went back to the hotel and went to sleep early.
The next day I walked several block to meet one of the other students, Nina, to ride together on the “Hampton Jitney” bus to Westhampton. I had a little moment of panic when I found out that the bus company messed up my reservation and had put it for the day before! On this bus, if you don’t have a reservation, the seats are first come, first serve! I finally convinced them to let me on because I was meeting someone, and I gratefully sank down into my seat next to Nina. Since we’d never met, we started talking, getting to know each other, and this to the utter chagrin of the man sitting behind us, who had apparently never heard of earplugs. We realized that this was a “quiet” bus, and we did keep our voices low, but there was a lot to say! In any case, part of the way into the journey, the man took it upon himself to get about 3 inches from my face and “shush” the two of us in a very derogatory manner; he was extremely rude and gave credence to the “rude New Yorker” stereotype. (luckily I have had mostly positive experiences in NYC!) But too bad about him. We were talking quietly, and it is after all, public transport. I feel sorry for this guy; he’s obviously never had any fun and probably has no friends!
When we finally arrived at Westhampton, I texted our prof. He and the owner of the house we would be staying at came and picked us up at the station. They started speaking French, and finally, she asked me if I understood. I told her I did, and they must all have been convinced that I had sufficient level, because for the rest of the week, we spoke mainly French!
THÈMES ET VARIATIONS
First of all, here is a link to the official site for the master class I took in June: http://frenchfrenchfluteintensive.weebly.com That way, you can take a look and get an idea what the whole thing was about. Additionally, you’ll hear some audio of Nicolas playing a piece by Philippe Gaubert. It’s actually stunning, even on a recording.
After getting settled in our rooms, it was time for lunch. I came downstairs timidly, not really knowing what to expect.
The cuisine – Our hostess is an artist, and I guess artists are always artistic! I noticed right away that even in the kitchen, she was one of those people who just does incredible things all the time, seemingly with no effort at all. Or at least, no visible effort! Green salad, soup, smoked salmon…all very simple things, but quite elegant in her hands. She created all our meals for the week as if by magic, and everything was just that: simple, elegant, local. These meals helped to remove, bit by bit, the stress of everyday life. And so began this immersion into a world of music…French music and French language as well! We took all our meals together three times a day, and enjoyed discussions about this and that. It was really an incredible experience, and I haven’t even touched on the music yet, which was the heart of the whole thing!
The Music – After this beautiful luncheon, we began to play. I was pretty nervous at the beginning! I’ve been having lessons with Nicolas by Skype for a while, but this was the first time I played for him in person. Now, the interesting thing about a Master Class is that you play for the prof, yes, but also for the other students. In this case, it was just Nina and myself, so it was a gentle introduction for me to this format.
The Format – The Master class is a format where the students learn together with a well-known Master musician. All the students listen and observe while the prof attends to one student at a time. Each has his turn to play something he has prepared, either an étude or a repertoire piece. The prof gives his advice to better interpret the piece; this can include anecdotes about the composer, demonstrations of certain passages, and commentaries and techniques for common errors. That’s just the definition, not super interesting, but it describes the way the class is given.
The Atmosphere – I knew right away that it would be a relaxed atmosphere. There were supposed to have been four of us, but two students backed out at the last minute, so it ended up being just Nina and me. Now, since we were only two, we had two sessions per day, and we worked on a lot of things, including exercises, scales, methods for working out difficult passages, etc. And that’s also why everyone spoke French for the week! So for me, it was a very unique opportunity. I could not have created a more perfect environment for learning flute the French way, while speaking French, if I had tried. Seriously, I think I spoke more French here than I did during the entire time that I have spent in France! In addition, the weather was gray and rainy all week, so we didn’t go out, and that made it a real musical retreat. We were like little flute hermits in a beautiful arty getaway, a million miles from anywhere.
Besides that, I love how at ease the teacher is when teaching in his native language. To be sure, he speaks excellent English, but in one’s native language, everything is just more natural! (for proof, compare my French and English versions of this post! The French one has been proof-read and corrected by two people and is rather less flowy. Of course!) All in all, everything came together perfectly, as though it were meant to be this way.
Our prof is a very active instructor. He walked around us, played his flute to demonstrate certain things, and several times played these demonstrations mere inches from our ears, so we could hear exactly what he was doing with breathing, articulation, and all the other nuances of the sound. The room where we had the lessons was part of a transformed barn, so the ceiling was very high and the sound carried well. I felt like I could almost touch it as it flew over and around me. So this is how it went: I played, I made mistakes, and the prof corrected me and gave me stories, images, and examples which all helped me to find my own sound.
In this way, I began to really understand the huge difference between Skype and “live.” And besides that, I started to experience some tiny but real changes in my own playing. There was some fog that was actually lifting for me, musically, during this course.
We started slowly, with long notes. This helped to find a centered tone, helped us think about our air (breathing and usage), and to discover how to send these notes somewhere…
I was a little surprised the first time I heard my prof play so close to me. Yes, it’s beautiful on Skype, or in a recording, or from the audience in a concert hall, but when it happens just mere feet away, it’s astoundingly rich and warm and can touch your very soul, even if he just plays a scale. At that moment I really appreciated what a special and unique opportunity I had to learn something rather profound about music. Here was a world-class musician with a special gift for sharing a passion for music, above all for French music. I was absolutely astounded to be there in that place, completely surrounded by this incredible music for a whole week.
About Learning – In order to improve oneself, the most important thing is to find a teacher with whom you have a good rapport, someone who speaks to your particular style of learning. I’ve had a lot of good flute teachers in my life, fantastic players, all of them! But when I was young, I think I lacked the maturity to properly appreciate the opportunities that I had, and in fact, as my former college prof recently reminded me, that was part of the process. I needed to be in that place at that time to work through the pain of simply being a young unskilled player. I was very fortunate indeed to have been one of her students. But that is a subject for another post. After that, I just never really had the time or the inspiration or maybe just never found a teacher whose style of teaching matched my style of learning enough to where I could make more profound leaps in my musical ability. I had to wait. And now that I am in my forties, mature enough to understand and appreciate things on another level, and time enough to do it, I have found a prof who has been able to be that inspiration and whose teaching methods are perfectly suited to me.
In short, there are a million ways to say the same thing, but finding that one way to say it that unlocks a door to someone’s understanding is the key to being a great teacher.
The schedule – Each morning, after breakfast, we began the first session. We had two sessions each day, morning and afternoon. All were done in the salon. Each time we began with scales and exercises, sometimes all together, sometimes one at a time. We learned how to work on long notes, scales and the famous “Big Daily Finger Exercises” by Mssrs. Taffanel and Gaubert, to create a solid foundation in the basics. After that, we’d each work on one of the pieces we’d prepared. In the afternoon, after lunch and maybe a little rest, we’d work on some trios, other pieces, etc. The goal was to do a “salon-concert” at the end of the week for some friends of our hostess. Our days typically ended around 9 or 10pm after eating dinner together. During these meals, I was absolutely delighted by the stories told by the other three!
So that’s how it was for the 6 days: we played music, we learned a ton, we discussed (music and all kinds of other stuff!), we ate amazing food, we relaxed and then at the end of it all, we gave a nice little concert.
To sum up – I wish I could really share with you the atmosphere of this incredible week, but it is impossible in words. When you learn music, sometimes it’s a little bit like learning to land an airplane. You try hundreds of times, and then one day, something just “clicks”. Once you’ve had the sensation of doing it properly, you can finally get to the business of trying to reproduce that feeling. I will leave you with some random thoughts about this week:
I shall send this music through the air to…the dog! And he seems to like it! What a great audience he is!
Relax…don’t be afraid to back up a little and try again…
Practice with purpose…”What are you doing, there? Why? What is the purpose of this exercise?” Ah-hah! I am beginning to finally see how I should be using this air…I have to hang on to this feeling! I have this image of that window at the top of the high ceiling, so close to the sky…
Each morning, I am awakened by birdsong…I am inspired by nature as well as the art that surrounds me in this house…
Green smoothies are a great way to start the day…they really kickstart the brain for learning!
And one last thing: I had a unique opportunity at this place, I got a taste of a world that I didn’t really know existed…it was a true inspiration for me and I am so pleased to have been able to be there!
After this fantastic week, six days of total tranquility, I decided to spend just one more day away, a day in Manhattan all by myself. You can read about it HERE. That day was kind of the opposite of Westhampton since NYC is so full of activity, being “The city that never sleeps.” If you ever have the chance, I highly recommend spending a day in NYC alone. It’s really an extraordinary experience!
What unusual learning experiences have you had, dear readers? Have you ever done a learning retreat like this for something you are passionate about? Who are the great teachers in your lives? Tell me in the comments! I’d love to hear about them!